Every night Megan Wilding walked onto the Belvoir stage in its 2017 production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover, she momentarily stole the show from under some of the best comic actors in the country: Toby Schmitz, Nikki Shiels, Gareth Davies and Nathan Lovejoy.
Wearing a leopard-print frock, sucking a ciggie and looking royally cheesed off, Wilding didn’t have to say a word.
When she did speak, she brought the house down.
“It was the best experience of my life,” Wilding says. “Every single cast member was so talented, they made my jaw hit the floor. I was just sitting there going, what? You want me to be funny? It was surreal.”
Some in that Belvoir audience might have seen Wilding once before, in Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, a co-production between musical theatre company Squabbalogic and the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs at the Sydney Opera House in 2016.
She can sing, too?
“Look, sure,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I can hold a tune … but I’m not Beyonce or Ursula Yovich. I take my hat off to musical theatre actors, the energy they must have … and all that smiling … but it makes my cheeks hurt.”
Sydney audiences can get another look at Wilding right now, in Tonsils + Tweezers, a black comedy by Perth writer Will O’Mahony staged at the Kings Cross Theatre. The show was originally produced by Black Swan in Perth in 2016. It was Wilding’s first gig after graduating from WAAPA.
Reviewer David Zampatti, writing in The Western Australian, was immediately struck by Wilding’s stage presence: “the stage stops dead for her whenever she’s on it. I’ve got absolutely no idea what the future holds for her, but I hope it will be commensurate with her rare talent and charisma.”
Wilding plays a relatively minor role in Tonsils + Tweezers, but she makes the most of it. “One of the characters is going through trauma and I play the only person who has reached out to him,” Wilding explains.
“It’s a really black comedy. There are moments where you laugh and moments where you will cling to your chair thinking what is going on? It’s super-intense and shocking and laugh-out-loud as well. Will is such a dynamic writer and my cast mates are phenomenal.”
Immediately after Tonsils + Tweezers, Wilding is stepping into the title role in Nakkiah Lui’s Blackie Blackie Brown at the Sydney Theatre Company. Co-starring with Ash Flanders, she plays a cold-blooded Aboriginal vigilante with a sharp line in superhero aphorism: “Your white meat is DONE, motherfucker.”
“It’s my first lead role, ever in my life,” Wilding says. It’s like being in Arturo Ui and you are Arturo Ui! I can hardly fathom it.”
Wilding, 27, grew up in Western Sydney, an only child.
Her parents have both passed away now but she grew up knowing she came from a big mob in the Walgett area of northern NSW; Kamilaroi country.
This is her mother’s side of the family. “I have a massive number of cousins and they are like brothers and sisters to me, and aunties and uncles who are like parents,” she says. “We all come together in Walgett to touch base. It feels like home to me.”
Her father was born in Queensland to English parents, and moved to NSW. He was estranged from his own family and Wilding never got to know her paternal relatives.
For a long time, Wilding told friends she had a happy childhood. “I’ve always denied there was anything wrong when I was a kid,” she says. “I focused on the happy parts because my parents really tried to give me everything, and I think they succeeded, but there were things out of their control that warped everything.”
Her parents encouraged the young Wilding into piano and tennis lessons. But the only class she enjoyed was drama in primary school and later high school. “I was told there is no career in it, no money,” she says. “But I knew it was something I was really good at and I loved it.”
Just after Wilding finished high school, her parents both fell ill.
“They were both on dialysis for different reasons,” she explains. “My mother never touched a drop of alcohol but she had liver problems and a heart condition. My father was a heavy drinker. He had a massive car accident when I was eight. He fell into a deep depression and his health went downhill pretty quick. My mother tried to be strong for both of us but she was getting sick too.”
Wilding’s father developed gangrene in his foot. “We went to so many doctors before someone said what it was,” she says. “He was given the option of living with it and having it go through his whole body or cutting it. But there was a 99 per cent chance he might die on the operating table.
“I remember him telling me this and saying, what do you think? I said I don’t know if I can take care of you with one leg. I was 20 and his sole carer at the time. It was very confronting in that moment because my dad was like, tell me the truth. The truth was that he was sick and I was young and wanted to run wild.”
He chose to go ahead with the operation.
He didn’t die on the operating table.
He died the next night.
“I remember feeling so, so guilty for saying I couldn’t take care of him when, without question, he would have taken care of me,” Wilding says. “I felt very selfish. I took it to heart and I’ve never fully forgiven myself. I felt like I was his last hope and I let him down.”
Wilding says it took four years to process her grief. “Around that time, at the four year mark, I lost my mum.”
After years of caring for her parents, Wilding decided she had to live her “truth”.
She took an acting course at the Eora Centre in Redfern, where she was encouraged to apply for the Aboriginal Performance program at WAAPA. From there, she entered the BA course in Acting.
It was in the middle of those years of study that her mother died.
“It was super confronting,” she says. “In the middle of me living my truth, I had this massive moment of guilt for not being where I should have been. My mum and I were very open with each other. She understood but I didn’t understand how she could understand, which is crazy because parents have unconditional love.”
Before her mother passed away, Wilding was finally able to share her own childhood trauma, something she had been silent about for 15 years.
“I was out-of-control in Perth. I was drinking and going out and being really unsafe with myself. I was pushing away people I loved. It’s a weird thing with trauma; it gives you an immortal complex, being that close to death … with Dad … it made me feel untouchable.
“Mum sat me down on the bed and said, what is wrong with you? What is going on? It took me about four hours to tell her. Every time I went to say something I just cried. I finally told her that when she left me with a babysitter, the babysitter’s son molested me. I was seven.
“Then it was just two women looking at each other. I didn’t know what to do and she didn’t know what to do. You never knew what to say in that situation. Sorry doesn’t cut it. A hug doesn’t cut it and ‘why didn’t you tell me’, doesn’t cut it.
“The first thing she said was ‘I’m glad Dad’s not here’.”
Trauma is a funny thing, Wilding says. “I think we’ve all experienced trauma in some way or another and we shouldn’t be ashamed of it because it brings out things either we don’t know or we don’t know we can overcome. That’s what this play, Tonsils + Tweezers, is about. Tweezers is going through trauma and he’s confused and he’s frustrated.
“I think we should allow people to be that more – because I don’t think we do – we are expected to be fixed in two weeks, but you can have a lifetime of grief.”
Wilding says her life experience has made her very open. “Because I was lost for words for so long … now I just say things. I keep it simple. There is so much power in simplicity … and when I watch theatre I get to unlock and feel certain emotions that sometimes I don’t allow myself. I think that’s what attracts me to acting in the theatre as well.”
Wilding has also found power in writing. She has workshopped one play with Moogahlin Performing Arts, and has another one on the way after winning the Balnaves Prize in 2017, the story of a woman who runs into the man who molested her as a child.
“It is very personal for me, but I also want it to be an allegory for white Australia and Aboriginal Australia,” Wilding says. “It sounds heavy, but I want it to be a Rom-Com … until it isn’t. I want people to enjoy themselves and fall in love with the characters. I love theatre that rocks you into safety and then pulls it away from you.”
Making her own work has long been part of the game plan, Wilding says.
“I was always told there wouldn’t be an abundance of roles for me. I was like, what? I can’t play an old white woman? So I’m focused on writing stories that I can perform. I saw Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife and thought, yes, that will be me in 20 years time! There is definitely space for me in the industry but no one is writing for me. So I have to.”
Wilding is frustrated that she sees roles with a brief saying “mixed race” or “could be any ethnicity” and the role ends up going to a white woman. She wants to see briefs stating characters are Aboriginal.
“I want to see characters who just happen to be Aboriginal … because we are everywhere. And we have such an abundance of talent and actors with emotional depth. Just look at Nakkiah Lui and Shari Sebbens and Rarriwuy Hick and Miranda Tapsell and Elaine Crombie. We are taking a step saying ‘we belong’, and I really, really like that. I hope to see more of it.”
Wilding is excited to be in Tonsils + Tweezers, in part because she doesn’t see many Indigenous faces in independent theatre productions in Sydney.
“It’s a little bit concerning when main stage companies are taking greater risks in casting and stories than the indie scene,” she says. “Which is why in Tonsils + Tweezers it is so thrilling. When I worked on the first production with Will O’Mahony, he said we’re not going to shy away from your character being Aboriginal, because you are.”
Audiences who enjoyed Wilding’s comic chops in The Rover may be surprised by her dramatic side. “With new people, I’m always like, hello, I’m really funny … but here’s all my emotional baggage!” she jokes. “I love comedy but I also love the dramatic stuff. I just love acting. I love it all. I want to write, I want to direct, I want to do all of it. Acting and the arts are the things that are true.”